World War II began seventy years ago today. After the initial German victories there would be some months of phony war before Europe really engaged; and it would take a couple of years before we entered; but today is when it began.
W. H. Auden famously lamented the date in his poem “September 1, 1939:”
I sit in one of the divesOn Fifty-second StreetUncertain and afraidAs the clever hopes expireOf a low dishonest decade:Waves of anger and fearCirculate over the brightAnd darkened lands of the earth,Obsessing our private lives;The unmentionable odour of deathOffends the September night.
Recent scholarship has added new details to the trumpery Hitler used to hide his guilt. The ostensible casus belli —the trigger that led to seven years of worldwide war and the deaths of seventy million— was a Polish army attack, on 31 August, on a German radio station at Gliwice (Gleiwitz), a few miles over the Polish border in Silesia.
Where it started: the radio tower at Gliwice. The tower survives; it is the tallest wooden structure in Europe.
In fact, the invading Poles who started World War Two —all seven of them— were specially selected SS soldiers in Polish Army uniforms. They were accompanied by one unconscious Pole, who had been drugged earlier in order to be shot and left as evidence on the station’s doorstep.
As Bob Graham reported in the Telegraph last week:
The audacity of the raid and the brazen manner in which it was exploited by Hitler is still astounding. It was shortly before 8pm that SS-Sturmbannfuhrer Alfred Naujocks and his elite six-man team drove into the radio station. In one of the cars was Franciszek Honiok, a 43-year-old unmarried Catholic farmer. He had been arrested by the SS in the village of Polomia on August 30, and ruthlessly selected as the person who would provide the ”proof” of Polish aggression against Germany.
The Nazis charged up the steps and through the station’s front door. They met no resistance from the guards and quickly overpowered the three engineers on duty.
In the hectic moments that followed, Naujocks fired several shots into the air and ordered the terrified staff to do as they were told.
One of the SS men, Karl Hornack, was a Polish speaker. He grabbed the main microphone and shouted: “Uwage! Tu Gliwice. Rozglosnia znajduje sie w rekach Polskich.”(Attention! This is Gliwice. The broadcasting station is in Polish hands.)
Germans and Poles had been bickering over various border claims in the area for years. Hornack continued with a warning that Poles were invading Germany to achieve “our just claims.” Those final words were never heard because the transmission had already been shut down by one of the engineers standing beside the electrical equipment.
However, the nine words that had been broadcast were enough to trigger the cataclysm. Before the SS team left, they shot Honiok through the forehead, and left his body, dressed in a Polish army uniform they had previously stolen, draped across the entrance steps.
Almost immediately, every German radio station, in a carefully co-ordinated move, broadcast the words used by the “invaders”. It was claimed that bodies of Polish regular soldiers who were killed in the incident remained at the scene.
The following morning, a raging Hitler used the incident at Gliwice as his excuse to declare war on Poland. Addressing a cheering Reichstag, he claimed that the violation of German territory by “Polish Army hooligans had finally exhausted our patience”.
British, French and other European governments were informed that Poland had started the war. Hitler’s duplicity would ensure that the German army gained vital hours as ministers dithered.
“Konserve”: Polish patriot Franciscek Honiok was the “canned meat” the SS sacrificed to start the war that Hitler wanted.
It wasn’t until the Nuremberg trials that the operation codenamed “Grossmutter gestorben” (Grandmother Died) was admitted. But it wasn’t until 1958, when British writer Comer Clarke tracked down SS-Sturmbannfuhrer Alfred Jaujocks, that the chilling details were revealed:
Naujocks, who died in 1960 and who never faced a war-crimes tribunal, disclosed how he had been summoned to the Berlin office of Reinhard Heydrich, the feared head of the German secret police.
“Heydrich told me ‘Within a month we shall be at war with Poland. The Fuhrer is determined. But first we have to have something to go to war about. We’ve organised incidents in Danzig, along the East Prussian border with Poland, and along the German frontier. But there has to be something big and obvious’.”
Naujocks described how Heydrich strode over to a wall map of Eastern Europe and stabbed a finger at Gliwice. “This is where you come in. The idea is that six men and yourself will burst into Gliwice radio station, knock out the staff and broadcast a speech in Polish and German, attacking Germany and the Fuhrer and announcing Poland’s intention of taking the disputed territories by force.”
Heydrich told how a body, dressed in Polish uniform, was to be left on the radio station steps to ”prove” the Polish connection.
Franciszek Honiok had been knocked out with drugs before the raid. He was dragged unconscious into the radio station, where he was shot. Naujocks added that Honiok had been referred to as a piece of “Konserve” or “canned meat” which could be prepared in advance and used to suggest Polish involvement. He appears to have been selected because of his involvement in a number of local revolts against German rule in Silesia, a border region spanning present day Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic. According to his surviving family in Poland, Honiok identified strongly with Silesia and Poland.
Even after the details became known, there was little interest in developing them. Germany was divided and uninterested in disinterring its past; and Polish nationalism was systematically suppressed by the Soviet Union.
Yesterday, for the first time, the event and Franciszek Honiok’s sacrifice, were acknowledged at a ceremony and seminar at Gliwice.
In 1961 an impressive East German film dissected the incident. Der Fall Gleiwitz (The Gleiwitz Case), directed by Gerhard Klein, is as interesting cinematically as it is historically; on both accounts it is highly recommended.